by Sam McBride
When the supposedly unsinkable RMS Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland during the evening of April 15, 1912 after hitting an iceberg, Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was a 22-year-old newly-commissioned lieutenant at the Royal Navy’s China Station in the British colony of Weihaiwei on the northeast China coast.
While none of Fritz’s close relatives died in the Titanic disaster and he never mentioned the sinking in his letters home between 1914 and 1942, the disaster had a significant impact on his family. His father, former Prince Edward Island premier Frederick Peters, abandoned his law practice in Victoria in 1911 to move north to the new community of Prince Rupert to take up the position of city solicitor. He made the move at age 59 confident that he was getting in on the ground floor of boom town. He had lost money in mining-related investments, and was hoping to get back on track financially in a thriving frontier economy.
Led by CEO Charles Melville Hays, the Grand Trunk Railway was going full speed in its program to develop Prince Rupert as a Pacific port to match thriving Vancouver. Another booster of the Grand Trunk Railway and Prince Rupert was Frederick Peters’ longtime political ally, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who visited Prince Rupert in 1910 and expressed his government’s support for port development.
The death of Hays in the Titanic disaster was a major blow to Prince Rupert, as he championed the port development project and had not shared his detailed plans for it with anyone else before his death. Frederick Peters would spend the last seven years of his life working to keep the fledgling Prince Rupert community from bankruptcy. When Fritz retired from the Royal Navy in 1913 he said the main reason was to “add to my family’s coffers”.
His father Frederick Peters’ finances were reduced to the point that his wife Bertha needed to collect contributions from her sons’ military pay so she could travel to England during the war years to be close to her sons fighting in the First World War.
The Peters family would also have taken a great interest in the Titanic story because of their heritage as descendants of steamship magnate Sir Samuel Cunard. Fritz’s father Frederick Peters knew his grandfather Samuel Cunard well from Cunard’s many visits to Charlottetown before his death in 1865 when Frederick was 13.
Titanic was built and operated by the White Star Line, which was the chief rival of the Cunard company in trans-Atlantic travel. Titanic and its sister ships Olympic and Britannic were built in response to the Cunarders RMS Mauretania, which began service in 1906, and RMS Lusitania, launched in 1907.
A key reason for the success of the Cunard company since its inception in 1840 was its commitment to safety as top priority. The sinking of Titanic was one more instance of loss of life by Cunard competitors obsessed with speed or otherwise careless about safety. In the 19th century the U.S. Congress provided grants towards establishing the Collins company as a dominant force in trans-Atlantic travel, but it was devastated by many well-publicized wrecks and fatalities at sea.
The exception to the Cunard record of safety was during wartime, when many Cunard vessels were seconded for British use in the war. Half of the Cunard fleet was sunk by German u-boats in the First World War, including Lusitania and RMS Carpathia, which rescued the Titanic survivors in 1912.
Fritz’s Cunard cousins ceased being involved in the management of the company in the 1920s.
One of the jobs Fritz had after his first retirement from the Royal Navy in 1913 was as third engineer with Canadian Pacific Railway ships in the interior of British Columbia. He left that position when he rejoined the Royal Navy in August 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. There is no record of him returning to civilian service at sea after retiring a second time from the Royal Navy in 1920.
In 1934 White Star merged with Cunard in a new company called Cunard White Star Limited. By 1949 Cunard had acquired all of White Star’s assets, and reverted to using the single name “Cunard”. Today, Cunard is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation and PLC.
Sources: Peters Family Papers, “Steam Lion: a Biography of Samuel Cunard” by John G. Langley, unpublished memoirs of Commander David Joel, RN.